Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Giving the gift of hope.

While my mom was at the lowest point in her struggle with addiction, I went to live with my great-grandparents. My great grandfather ("Pa Paw") a mechanic, with a sixth grade education, owned a small mechanic's shop and gas station, and my great grandmother ("Granny") helped out there - her red hair and boisterous laugh greeting the customers from the neighborhood. They were poor, but they paid their bills on time... unfortunately there was just very little left over at the end of the month. They worked hard six days a week, often sixteen hour days or more. But they made room in their home for a cranky pre-teen, and gave me shelter, comfort and love.

[If you're wondering why I didn't live with my father - my dad was temporarily out of the picture here, but that's a story for a different day]

Late that summer, Pa Paw - a rather large man (probably 6'3" and close to 240 pounds) was walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night and fell. He called out for Granny and when she found him he was lying in a pool of blood in the narrow hallway.

When the ambulance reached the house he didn't have a pulse. Paramedics swarmed overhim with equipment and were finally able to revive him. During tests over the next few days, we found out that he had extremely advanced colon cancer and lymphoma. The doctor said that Pa Paw had to have known he was sick, but he distrusted doctors the same way he did bankers (years after he was gone we still found coffee cans full of money buried in the flower gardens).

They tried chemo, surgery... removing portions of his organs where the cancer had spread. He was swollen - his skin waxy and hard from fluid retention. He laughed, and said well, at least I still have my hair. As I was combing it for him that evening it fell out in silver clumps across the hospital pillow. He asked me how it looked and I whispered that I thought it was handsome.

I was in seventh grade and every day after school someone would drop me off at the hospital so I could tell him about my day. I ate out of vending machines and the hospital cafeteria most nights. The smell of the cancer ward permeated my clothes, filtered through my skin and became a part of me.

Every day he would ask how my grades were, if he was going to have to get a stick to keep the boys away... how my basketball practice was going.

He was always so proud of me... I left the hospital in his arms when I was born.

Days turned into weeks, then months - and to be honest I lost all track of time. On a Sunday, while watching a Dallas Cowboys game, he had a stroke. He struggled, fighting all afternoon- not wanting to give up. After many tears, Granny quietly whispered to him that she was strong enough, that if he needed to he could let go. He looked at her and smiled, and she held his hand as he departed.

After the funeral, we started trying to get on with our lives. Only, the finances were in much worse shape than we were aware. There were some outstanding liens on the shop, and he had let his life insurance lapse. The meager savings that the two of them had worked for their entire lives for was gone - as Pa Paw was forever forgiving of people who were on hard times and couldn't pay his bills. He had always done the books for the store, and there were outstanding taxes to be paid. Large ones. At twelve, I started my first negotiations with the Internal Revenue Service.

At first, people came by often - dropping off food and words of comfort. As their numbers slowly dwindled, so did the items in the pantry. A proud woman, Granny refused to go on to public assistance or to accept church handouts. So we made do with what we had - which meant a lot of red beans and cornbread. And then just pot after pot of plain red beans when the cornbread became too much of a luxury.

I found Granny crying in her bedroom, holding his picture and pulling out Christmas ornaments from the closet. She sighed and told me that we wouldn't have much of a Christmas that year, because there simply wasn't money to do so. She was worried because I had hit a growth spurt and desperately needed a new coat. I told her that I would wear one of hers. That we would get by, somehow. I didn't believe it, but I thought that if I said it enough it would be true.

That night, helping her to calculate the checkbook up, I realized we had only $157. The gas bill was late, the electricity needed to be paid, and the water department was threatening to shut off the water.

Friends at school were gossiping about what they hoped their parents would buy them, where they were going to vacation during winter break, and I was hoping that there would still be water on when I got home to shower with.

Someone from the neighborhood submitted our names to a charity organization, and right before Christmas two women showed up bearing bags of gifts and food. The brought me a beautiful new emerald green coat, clothes that hadn't been worn and handed down by someone else... and new tennis shoes. Someone even made me handbeaded earrings. Knowing my love for basketball, they brought a goal and a ball, I remember being so ecstatic that I had one. They brought in an enormous box of household items - feminine hygiene products, paper towels, toiletries, and food - canned goods, staples, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a turkey.

At first I was angry. I was twelve after all, and the thought of someone thinking that I was a charity case mortified me. But as I tentatively tried on the new clothes, I wept. People actually cared about someone who wasn't in their family. People actually cared about me. People actually cared... period.

Yes, I was grateful for the presents. Yes, I adored having clothes that didn't fit awkwardly, that hadn't been worn by someone else. Yes, I enjoyed the meal - and the many creative ways we had to make it stretch into many more.

But what I was most grateful for was the gift of hope. To know that there was good in the world.
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Sitting next to the tree last night, Michael and I were talking about what we were going to buy each other for Christmas. He's notoriously difficult to buy for, and I was getting frustrated because he wasn't forthcoming with any ideas.

Finally he looked at me, and said - "Look, I have everything that I want within these walls. I have you, the cats. I have warm clothes to wear, food in the pantry, and I don't want for anything. This year... what I want most is to help someone else. Please buy gifts for someone else who needs it, instead of getting something for me. That would mean more to me."

So this year there may be little or nothing under the tree for each other, but our hearts are brimming over. If we could bring just one breath of hope to a child, that is all the gift we need.

As you begin your holiday preparations, please -if you can- take time to remember those that may not be as fortunate this year. You never know how profoundly the smallest gesture of good will may shape a young person's life.

It's not about how much you spend, to a kid who isn't going to get anything for Christmas, Channukah or Kwanzaa - or even just because - a dollar store toy means just as much as FAO Schwartz.

It's about the feeling that you're not just another statistic - not just another elephant in the living room that no one wants to acknowledge. It's about the feeling that you're an actual living, breathing person whose dreams and hopes could potentially be a reality. And at the very least it's feeling less like a stigma - a person who is less. It's about feeling as close to "normal" as you can, if even if for just a little while. It's not about lavish gifts. What it's about is hope.

[And a special thanks to Cricket - for giving me the courage to talk about what it's like on the receiving end].

29 Comments:

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Shinny said...

Ok, You got me crying now.
You are beautiful people.
After all you have been through to not be totally shutdown and just saying, Screw you world.
To be so selfless and able to reach out to others is one of the most wonderful things that could be done at any time of year.
Bless you and your family. Wishing all your hopes return and dreams come true in the coming years. You are an inspiration to us all.

 
At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Lala said...

you continue to knock my socks off with your story.

 
At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Wavery said...

April, I am always so proud when I see people talking articulately about surviving poverty, but this post, you blow me away.

 
At 3:29 PM, Blogger Cricket said...

Thanks for heeding the call, April.

Your perspective is so important to this dynamic. After reading this, people for whom it matters will no longer feel like they're giving into a void. All gifts given will be as special as that emerald green coat you received, as much as I want more than a coat for a kid for Christmas!

 
At 4:03 PM, Blogger zhl said...

Wow, April, the more I hear about your story, the more I admire you. And thanks for the reminder. I'd been in a funk because I really couldn't think of anything for the hubby but now I know what we can do.

 
At 4:23 PM, Blogger Vacant Uterus said...

What a beautiful story, April. Thank you for sharing it. And I jsut have to add...how very, incredibly strong you are to have endured so much in your life and yet still be such a good person. It's inspiring, to say the least.

 
At 4:25 PM, Blogger Donna said...

We are also foregoing presents for each other and giving what we can to charities. We have an embarrassment of riches already. Thanks for another wonderful story.

 
At 4:36 PM, Blogger Spanglish said...

What a lovely post... and timely for so many of us.

 
At 6:14 PM, Anonymous Lori said...

Thank you for sharing your story. Having been fortunate enough to be on the giving end, I've wondered the impact the gifts have on the recipient.

 
At 6:24 PM, Blogger Sheryl said...

April that's such a great story. I had tears in my eyes while reading it. Your posts are always amazing

 
At 6:26 PM, Blogger Kim said...

That's a beautiful post. I'm sure you've inspired many people to give that little bit extra this Christmas.

 
At 6:42 PM, Blogger Liz said...

I'm so glad I found your blog. After reading your post it gave me hope and it helped me feel good about Christmas, as you reminded me what the true meaning is. Thanks for sharing your story.

 
At 6:46 PM, Blogger DD said...

That was just...incredible. It's so easy for me to get caught up in my own personal battles and bitches, so it's nice to have a wake up call that makes one open their eyes and realize where the need is the greatest.

Thanks for reminder...for all of us.

 
At 7:15 PM, Blogger Larisa said...

You and your husband are amazing people. I am so blown away by both parts of your post. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

 
At 10:30 PM, Blogger Stephanie G said...

Beautiful Story.... Absolutely Beautiful!

 
At 11:16 PM, Anonymous Julianna said...

Wow. Just wow, AND "thank you".

 
At 10:34 AM, Blogger Lola said...

That was utterly beautiful. Thank you.

 
At 12:07 PM, Anonymous Caroline said...

Thanks so much for that beautiful reminder of what this season should really be about.

 
At 2:07 PM, Anonymous wessel said...

Beautiful story, and once again, I feel a kinship with you over yet another similar childhood experience. By the way, did you grow up in the south? I've never felt comfortable talking about my childhood poverty, but I'm so glad that you did. People need to know how great a difference such a seemingly small act can make. As you said, it wasn't just the material things, but the gift of hope, and belief in the goodness of the universe.

You are truly blessed this year. :-)

 
At 6:00 PM, Blogger deanna said...

your story.....a beautiful gift in itself.....

 
At 9:03 PM, Blogger Ova Girl said...

What a fantastic post. Thankyou. Beautiful. And inspiring.

 
At 12:43 AM, Anonymous mm said...

Thank you for this. As I sit here with tears in my eyes from reading your story, I'm suddenly remembering what Christmas is all about. After spending the last few years hating this season bc it reminded me of everything I didn't have, it's nice to remember that I have more than most people could ever hope for.

 
At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Alexa said...

Thank you for this. Your strength and compassion inspire me. Truly. You have just helped me decide how I would like to spend Christmas day.

 
At 1:25 PM, Anonymous Jen said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. Many blessings to you and your family this Christmas.

 
At 11:46 PM, Anonymous Erin said...

Your posts are continually amazing. Thank you for sharing such important and meaningful parts of your life.

 
At 8:32 AM, Anonymous thalia said...

What a wonderful act by those two women - and to have got it so right!

We're buying H's parents gifts of school supplies to a school in Africa - we asked them and they were delighted with the idea.

 
At 2:24 AM, Blogger Lisa P. said...

Beautiful post April. We weren't quite as bad off, but had help when Dad was out of work, and I've always appreciated it. I've "adopted" two kids this Christmas to honor the two babies I lost, and it has never felt so rewarding to buy presents in all my life.

 
At 12:46 PM, Anonymous pixi said...

I've been looking for a new family tradition - something for my husband and I to start with the plan of bringing it to our "someday" children. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction.

This is one of the most beautiful stories of holiday spirit that I have ever read.

 
At 2:28 PM, Anonymous T said...

APRIL! You should warn people that they're going to be fucking sobbing uncontrollably at their desks if they read. Must get back to later when I have a bit more privacy. phew. Hits too close to home.

 

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